I didn’t plan on quitting reading monthly comics in 2006, it just sort of happened that way. This is probably something that happened to a lot of people this past year, and the reason for many of us are certainly the same: Marvel and DC Comics.
Before this year I had been reading comics for over twenty years, and had been pretty serious about them for most of that time. I would go to my local comic book store every week – when I was a kid I would go to Little Nemo’s in Forest Hills, right around the corner from where Peter Parker tries to catch the school bus in the first Spider-Man. As the years went on I moved around, but always found the local store, even if I had to walk miles to get there, like I did when living in Albany New York and some shitty suburb in Illinois for the better part of a year. At first I came back every week for the characters, then I began to follow writers. As I got older I found myself getting more experimental as I got tired of the same old superhero nonsense. But still I kept coming back every single week.
But this year a breaking point was reached. Part of that was the price: most comic books today cost about 3 dollars. Where is this considered a decent price, let alone a bargain? Three dollars gets you about 27 to 30 pages, which can usually be read in less than ten minutes. Imagine if a movie cost you three bucks per ten minutes – Return of the King would have had a 60 dollar ticket price. It’s completely insane, especially when you compare the monthly comic cost to that of trade paperback collection: the latest 100 Bullets trade, Decayed, collects seven issues of the excellent Vertigo crime comic. The book is 15 dollars; buying seven issues at three bucks a pop would have cost 21. Why would I even begin to want to do that, especially when the story reads more smoothly and meatier when collected into one volume?
Marvel Civil War may be a fine series, but how much does that matter when the book never, ever comes out? Books shipping late seems to be the norm today. Delays may be what really got me to break the habit – I simply got sick of going to the store every week just to find that the book I was looking for was delayed by weeks or months. Eventually that meant I wasn’t going to the store very often at all, and the smaller press books – which always had spotty shipping schedules – would end up getting left behind when I didn’t see them on the stands.
I don’t exactly understand why it is that comic book artists today can’t keep to monthly schedules when they used to do twice as much work in the Silver Age, but they can’t. And that means books are either late – like Civil War or Ultimates (a book so late that schedules seem like a bad joke) – or really shitty. All considerations of how bad Infinite Crisis was as a piece of storytelling aside, the book had too many fill-in pages, including some pages in the final issue that were incomprehensibly bad and a double page spread that seemed to not even be inked. These pages, by the way, were fixed in the eventual collection. What that means is that the suckers who bought that comic got inferior product.
But thanks to late books I have been trained to not expect a comic story that continues every 30 days. In the long run there’s no difference between waiting four or five months between issues and waiting six to twelve months for a trade. Even if I do have a hard time waiting, there’s always the internet – and I’m not just talking about piracy (confession: I did, for a time, download comic book torrents. However the quality of comics being produced on a monthly basis is so low that I couldn’t even bring myself to read these pirated comics half the time. I just went back to buying the trades of comics I liked, or from creators I trusted). You can follow the events of most mainstream titles on internet message boards, especially if you’re interested in a big event like Civil War or DC’s 52. There’s no need to drop three bucks on a pamphlet when you can get the basic details online, especially when – like with 52 – it’s total dick anyway.
This isn’t a new argument; I’ve been making it myself for the last couple of years. 2006 just happens to be the year when my pathetic addiction was finally overcome. I still buy trades (especially on Amazon, where they’re nicely discounted – sorry, local comic shop full of unfriendly alpha nerds), but my monthly jones is gone. And it’s the way of the future, as Howard Hughes might say. Remember, Charles Dickens wrote his novels as serials, but nobody is saying that you have to buy Oliver Twist in installments today. Change comes, and while serializations are fine for longform storytelling like TV, comic books take the whole concept to an insane extreme. Look at a book like Scott Pilgrim, where Bryan Lee O’Malley produces a comic that comes out at its own pace, but where he also packs each book with enough content to make all but the most extreme fanatic feel satisfied. And it isn’t like the companies would need to stop publishing their titles – if fans are used to buying four monthly Superman titles plus assorted spin-offs and tie-ins, they’ll buy a whole bunch of longform Superman books. Hell, with the number of creative teams that work on the multitudes of books featuring each company’s biggest characters, DC and Marvel could STILL publish a novel-length book a month with each character.
A move to longform comic books is completely overdue, especially since it seems like Brian K Vaughn is the only guy who knows how to do a decent monthly cliffhanger, and he’s off to Lost at any rate. Comics used to contain multiple short stories, and eventually the stories filled out to full book length. The stories soon became bigger than the individual book’s page counts and thus was born the multi-part story, but there’s been no change in pages to keep up with the expanded storytelling – which has been getting even more expanded as stories get “decompressed” (ie, nothing happens for the first five issues of a six issue story). It’s time the comic industry completely shed these little floppy monthlies and moved comics into the next generation. And that next generation is partly about treating comics as an art, and not a monthly product. We don’t demand that bands deliver albums every six months, or that novelists have a book every year. We don’t even blink when it takes filmmakers a couple of years to get a movie finished. Starting in 2007 the big two should begin leaving the past behind and start embracing the future of the art.